Trio of restaurants brings cultural diversity
Arts District was once a starving, dull blot east of Downtown Los Angeles spotted with industrial and railroad buildings devoid of human warmth.
Almost a decade later, the Arts District has transformed into a vibrant neighborhood, rejuvenated by artsy hipsters who moved into renovated loft-style apartments and by numerous new restaurants that sprouted in the once-deserted landscape. Itâs a tit-for-tat phenomenon that has lifted the Arts District in popularity: More residents meant more eateries, and these new restaurants attracted new visitors, which cycled back to more residents.
One of the earliest people to foresee the potential of the Arts District was restaurateur Jason Ha, who restored a historic building into an Asian-fusion sushi restaurant in 2002.
Ha is a pioneer in revitalizing eastern Downtownâs dining scene. When he first came to the United States at 19 years old, he barely spoke a word of English. Walking around the college cafeteria with his lunch tray, he determinedly introduced himself to different tables each day with the only English sentence he knew: âHello, Iâm Jason. How are you?â
A couple of decades later, and Ha is now a Californian-ized Korean. He speaks perfect English with a California twang but retains dramatic Korean expressions. His skin is tanned from years of windsurfing with multi-ethnic friends, but he still attends a Korean church.
It was only fitting that the first restaurant he built in the Arts District was Zip Fusion Sushi, a sushi restaurant with a Californian twist and the hospitality of a Korean home. In fact, the âzipâ in Zip Fusion means âhomeâ in Korean, and Zip Fusion Sushi has the uncanny gift of remembering repeat customers by name.
Though sushi is a Japanese food, the chef leading the kitchen is Sean An, a Korean-American who once wowed the palates of high-ranking military officers during his military duty. His menu is innovative and localized, taking advantage of fresh local produce and seafood to create from the colossal Zip Fusion Roll (tuna, salmon, yellowtail, snapper, crab, cucumber and avocado) to the carb-conscious Whiskey and Soda Back Roll (no rice, tuna, salmon, egg, asparagus, crab, burdock root, avocado).
Since this successful venture, Haâs progressive spirit has earned him the title âMover and Shakerâ of Downtown Los Angeles from the Los Angeles Center City Association in 2004. Ha is the epitome of the classic American dream come true; heâs an immigrant-turned-U.S. citizen whose fervent visions helped build a cultural niche in a historically rich neighborhood.
Ha has since collected more spaces at the same historical location to build two more restaurants: K-town BBQ and NOLAâs âA Taste of New Orleans.â Now dubbed âHaâs Corner,â the trio of eateries is a rich melting pot of international flavors and local relationships.
Though directed under the same ownership, each restaurant at Haâs Corner is unique. NOLAâs, opened about four months ago, is the latest example of the colorful interactions that take place under one roof.
NOLAâs is the collaboration between Ha and his long-time friend Cabrini Schnyder, a New Orleans native and now Downtown resident. Schnyderâs entrepreneurial chutzpah has carried her through an adventurous series of businesses in Los Angeles, from a mid-city jazz club to a downtown dog boutique, to the most recent New Orleans supper club in partnership with Ha.
Though Ha built the structural foundation for NOLAâs, Schnyder imbued New Orleans soul and color into it with her childhood tastes and memories. Their multiracial partnership â they call themselves a âhusband and wifeâ team â glows with optimistic significance, especially because relationships between blacks and Koreans in Los Angeles have historically been rocky since the 1992 riots.
NOLAâs is a spot with great soul and character, providing a dynamic pulse to the once-obscure Arts District. The red-curtained stage at the back of the long dining hall lit with gothic lamps and shimmering candles is designed by the neighboring Southern California Institute of Architecture. Decked out with a grand piano and mike stands, the stage is open to local jazz and blues musicians who need a platform to showcase their vocal and instrumental talents.
NOLAâs menu is developed and executed by chef Edric Ocampo, who is Filipino-American but somehow keeps the authenticity in the New Orleans dishes intact. The crab claws, shrimp and calamari in his signature dish, Seafood Medley, retain all their juices while soaking in the rich, buttery broth zinging with a special NOLAâs house-blend of seasoning. NOLAâs jambalaya is simmered in brown roux with hand-stuffed andouille sausage and spices for the entire day until it is thick with aroma and flavor. A fat shrimp-studded gravy embraces an oasis of creamy white rice in the shrimp etouffe.
Dessert at NOLAâs is a collaboration with other local organizations. The raisin-spangled bread pudding, for example, is made with bread from Homeboy Industries, a Downtown-based non-profit that assists at-risk and formerly gang-involved youth.
K-town BBQ is currently in the middle of changes to better fit the Arts District personality. Ha has invited several local artists within the district to come and splatter their signature artsy flair onto the bare industrial walls.
The menu will also get a hipper fusion addition by Ocampo, who will unravel his Filipino heritage into new dishes, such as deep-fried pork belly with Filipino BBQ sauce, adobo chicken on garlic fried rice and Filipino-style pork and chicken skewers.
But thatâs just the start of a series of relationships that weaves Haâs Corner into the human fabric of Los Angeles. With plenty of music, food and drinks, Ha found a way to incorporate other cultures and flavors while staying true to the Los Angeles community.
Sophia Lee is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism and East Asian languages and cultures. Her column âCross Bitesâ runs Mondays.Â